Char Bagh steps outside the norm of conventional artistry at Vancouver's PuSh festival

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      The  PuSh festival has a reputation for expanding the boundaries of artistic expression—and that will certainly be on display when newer forms of storytelling come together in Char Bagh.

      Conceived by Vancouverites Naveen Girn and Manjot Bains, the title refers to a Persian garden divided into four symmetrical squares divided by water.

      "It's supposed to be a metaphor for heaven," Girn told the Straight by phone. "It's a place for contemplation and discussion."

      In Char Bagh, San Francisco hip-hop star Mandeep Sethi will appear with Berkeley graffiti artist Nisha Sembi, Toronto spoken-word poet Rupi Kaur, and the female DJs in Vancouver's Lil India. All of the performers are of South Asian descent and it will culminate in a dance party DJed by Sethi.

      "It's a nice mix of these different types of artists and storytelling," Girn said.

      Unfilmed Fantasia by Mandeep Sethi

      Sethi and Sembi collaborated on the Word to Your Motherland project, which created a vibrant mural on the North Shore Lookout Shelter in 2013.

      It brought together residents of the shelter and youth. The mayor of the City of North Vancouver, Darrell Musssatto, said at the time that the mural represented creativity and cultural diversity on the North Shore.

      Word to Your Motherland

      Girn admires Sethi for bringing together hip-hop traditions of India and Africa. As he performs his set and Kaur delivers her poetry, Sembi will create a mural in response to what she's hearing.

      Even though Kaur is only in her early 20s, she already has written a book, milk and honey, and has a large following on social media.

      "She speaks to this idea of the incompleteness of love and heartbreak, but she also has these great poems about the beauty of broken English—her parents' tongue—and the immigrant's experience. All those things growing up you might feel ashamed about, but she really validates and celebrates those things," Girn said. "So it's really beautiful in that way."

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      He described Lil India as the "premier female DJs in Vancouver who do Bollywood hip-hop and rap".

      Girn and Bains, editorial director of the South Asian lifestyle magazine Jungi Style, have produced Char Bagh under the banner of their new company, Digital Handloom. 

      The show will also include a small video piece by Girn, which resulted from his visits to the Vancouver archives. He went there looking for a mug shot of Mewa Singh, who was hanged in 1914 after murdering immigration inspector William Hopkinson.

      Hopkinson played a key role in the Komagata Maru being forced to leave the harbour with more than 350 passengers of South Asian descent just a few months earlier.

      Girn said he never came across Singh's mug shot, but found many others from the early 20th century. They included images of people of Chinese and First Nations descent who had been arrested for stealing coal or a handbag and who were sentenced to months of hard labour.

      "There's a lot of gaps in the archives in terms of where you can find African or South Asian or Chinese stories," he stated. "But in the mug shots, you can find a lot of people who were indiscriminately arrested for things."

      Some of those of African descent were asked to leave town, according to Girn.

      To Girn and Bains, Char Bagh represents the idea of showing the intercultural past of Vancouver and linking it to present-day stories of contemporary artists.

      Char Bagh is at Performance Works (1218 Cartwright Street, Granville Island) on Saturday (January 31) as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.